by Ines Tielas da Silva
The Four Day Work Week is one of The few reforms that seem to attract people from all sides of the political spectrum: liberals call it the “future of productivity”, whereas social democrats and socialists see it as a neo-Keynesian balm for “work-life” balance. Critiques of this popular idea are usually technical (i.e. the amount of work expected from workers) rather than substantial – almost as if, in its essence, the four-day workweek were objectively uncontroversial. But is it?
What is the Four-Day Work Week?
The Four Day Work Week is a simple concept: instead of working 5 days, workers would work only 4 days a week, the same number of hours per day they normally would, without bearing the brunt of a paycheck cut. This idea is at least 50 years old, but has in recent years gained currency in “serious” policy spheres as a way of addressing unemployment (fewer hours worked by those employed would mean more hours available for those unemployed), the climate catastrophe (fewer days at the office, fewer resources consumed), and even worker’s productivity (if given more time to rest, workers will be more efficient during working hours).
At face value, this is – finally! – progress towards the workless future capitalism has always said lies right around the corner, just past the carrot stick. But… Is every step forward a step in the right direction? In the age of neoliberal depoliticization, leftists should be all the more sceptical about policies that rally support from both employers and employees. In this article, I argue that two issues stand in the way of this 9 to 5 utopia: one of analysis, and another of political imagination.
Flawed Analysis: A Four-Day Work Week for Whom?
Not all labour is the same. A first distinction to bear in mind concerns payment: some workers receive a salary (a fixed amount paid at the end of month), whereas others receive a wage (payments based on the number of hours worked, or outputs produced in a day). This distinction usually follows the white/blue-collar line: salaried workers tend to hold managerial, clerical, or bureaucratic positions that usually offer stable conditions such as holiday pay, sick and childbirth leave; wage workers tend to perform physical labour (cleaning, building, food-delivery), industrial (assembly lines), or customer-facing jobs (call-centres, retail…), under much more precarious working conditions. A third category are those who work for themselves, ranging from freelance service providers (your Instagram crochet influencer, digital nomads, but also traditional small business owners like restaurants or corner shops) to smallholder farmers, and whose salary is directly tied to both their productivity and ability to sell their products.
Another distinction might be between workers who have a “normal” contract, and those who are inserted into the “gig economy” through zero-hour contracts and false “freelance” schemes (think Uber and similar projects). The first type of worker might be severely exploited working in McDonald’s or Zara, but have certain protections such as minimum wage and, at least in theory, a weekly hour cap. In contrast, gig economy workers are generally completely unprotected: if you are sick and don’t work, tough luck.
When scanning the type of jobs available, we quickly notice that salaried work is far from being the norm: most people receive wages, whether they are on a contract or not. Thus, the Four Day Work Week can hardly ever be a project for “all workers”: if your wage depends on hours worked or outputs produced, you cannot reduce the work week without reducing your earnings, or dramatically increasing your daily productivity (which is not always possible, and is rarely desirable for the worker).
A Four Day Work Week for all workers would require forcing corporations such as Inditex, for instance, to either substantially increase their hiring rates to compensate for the reduced staff rotas (and this is considering only retail, not their less-than-legal supply chains), or agree to substantially reduce their profits by operating on a reduced schedule. Similarly, it would require the state to subsidize every small business owner to ensure your local family restaurant (that often works six-, and even seven-day weeks) can reap the benefits. Thus, when applied to the whole economy, the Four Day Work Week becomes a much more complicated idea to execute. In fact, on its own, it appears as an unrealistic project, devoid of any political significance because for it to work the whole economy would have to be fundamentally transformed – and that level of transformation is simply not what proponents of the Four Day Work Week are suggesting we do.
This is a rough sketch outlining some of the substantial labour differences in today’s neoliberal economy. This discussion is, unsurprisingly, often erased from the Four Day Work Week debate, which centres some valid concerns of the white-collar, salaried class but has little to offer to every other worker. In fact, when reading the myriad of papers written about the subject, it seems that proponents of this policy don’t think about other workers much at all. In a BBC article about a Four Day Work Week trial in the UK, one of the interviewees nailed this point by describing the failed experience in his company:
“In professional services, you often have project-based work that affords greater flexibility in meeting deadlines. Here, we have milling machines, a trade counter and around-the-clock deliveries – working from home is impossible, so you need a minimum number of staff on-site, or you don’t have a business.”
This testimony is powerful because it showcases the blatant bias in Four Day Work Week proposals: they assume most jobs today are office jobs, and that most jobs that aren’t can simply be “automated”. Underlying what is marketed as “the future of work” is, actually, a rather Global Northern, urban, classist, (dare I say, lazy), and skewed analysis of today’s economy. So, what happens when we get stuck asking the wrong questions?
Lacklustre Dreams: Is This Really the Best We Can Imagine?
As I argued above, the Four Day Work Week is a policy option designed with a very clear target audience in mind. However, even if salaried jobs enjoy considerable benefits above wage work in many senses, they are often far from comfortable or fulfilling. The Four Day Work Week would, in these scenarios, probably dramatically improve workers’ quality of life, and even efficiency. But is this really what we envision as the future of work? A longer weekend for those who work in offices, with the perk of added efficiency for the employer to rake in some extra profit? Ultimately, is our dream for the future to go into the office a little bit more caught up on sleep before we waste the rest of the week working again?
In his bestselling book Bullshit Jobs, the late anthropologist David Graeber dissects the increase in seemingly meaningless jobs, the kind that if they were to go on strike, no one would notice. In doing so, he notes a strange trend in capitalism: work doesn’t seem to decrease with technological advancement, as 19th-century economists had predicted (who thought that by the 21st century, we wouldn’t be working more than 15-hour weeks! Hah!). This is not, however, because we failed to make enough technological advancements, but because regardless of how much technology “advances”, capitalism simply isn’t compatible with a leisure society (and I would love to expand on this argument, dear reader, but alas it must remain a question for another time!).
So I will ask you again: what happens when you get stuck asking the wrong questions?
You get the wrong answers. And we really don’t have time to waste on silly riddles, whether it should be 32 or 40 hours a week. So, dear reader, let me propose a few different questions:
What is the point of work?
Why should everyone work almost the entire week when we are currently overproducing at a pace so destructive the Amazon might disappear well within our lifespan?
If most people are working this much, and we are overproducing, how is hunger on the rise while Europe wastes more food than it imports?
What is the point of work?
How could we think of work beyond the (international) division of labour?
What is the point of campaigning for 4 days here, when you know our economy will continue to rely on 14h+ days there?
I will ask you again: What. is. the. point. of. work?
And while we’re at it, what do we actually dream of creating for our collective lives?
Ines is the Research and Project Assistant at the International Panel of Specialists on Sustainable Food Systems (iPES-Food). She is a graduate in Postcolonial Culture & Global Policy, where she specialised in linking colonial histories, spatial justice, and labour struggles. She has been involved with the Institute of Race Relations and the Stuart Hall Library. More recently, Ines was a trainee at the European Parliament. Further inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org